“Leadership is an inch wide and a mile deep” – National Staff Ride Workshop

By Persephone Whelan



What is a staff ride workshop and what will I learn?

I wasn’t quite sure, but I seized the opportunity to attend the Shiloh Battlefield Staff Ride with both hands and didn’t let go. I knew we were going to revise the Mack Lake Staff Ride for the Mio Ranger District on the Huron Manistee National Forest and if this was part of the process, count me in! I had no expectations and really wasn’t quite sure what would happen.

The first part of the workshop we were definitely not part of “the gang.” Two interagency hotshot crews were present. I felt like an ice cube floating in an IHC punch bowl.

That first evening we had a briefing and a brief sketch of how the next day would be conducted. I hope I am not dating myself too badly here, but do you remember a Shilo3children’s show when we were younger with the song, “One of these kids is doing his own thing…” and you looked at the pictures and it was obvious which one was different? Well, during that first night, that song was drifting through my head as I looked around the room at the audience. The staff ride developers were there but were definitely not like the others! They divided us into four groups, intermixing the staff ride teams with the hotshots—diluting the ice cubes, if you will. Our purpose was to exercise the decision-making skills of wildland fire leaders against the historical background of the Battle of Shiloh.

Learning that is Intoxicating

The next day exposed a diversity of thought and an exposure to a type of teaching and learning that is intoxicating.

We were immersed in a climate designed to “create conditions of success.” We were exposed to skilled facilitators who were focusing on what was happening in the group dialogue and weren’t forcing their own agenda or what they felt SHOULD happen. They maintained a light hand on the steering wheel of guided discovery and adapted to allow us to discover what we didn’t know. The point wasn’t the choices made by leaders during the Battle of Shiloh or the historical context of those choices. The point was to get us to think, to talk, and to listen. Utilizing questions with no definitive answer but designed to provoke and sprinkling quotes like the one in the title, that were reflective of the difficulties inherent in developing leadership qualities. “Leadership is an inch wide and a mile deep” was Shilo2thrown around multiple times by our group facilitator. Leadership is a simple little word thrown around by a lot of people but to define it, to teach it, or to live it is to dive a mile deep into the worlds of philosophy, rhetoric and life.

By the end of the day we were no longer ice cubes floating in that IHC punch bowl, we had melted together into a group of practitioners.

Sharing the Learning

The following day we left the IHCs to finish the staff ride and dove into the process of creating o
r revising staff rides. While there were groups from many different agencies, we all had a common purpose. There were events and resulting outcomes in our respective areas that we felt were important to share this learning with the entire tribe.

After a day of grinding out our staff rides’ framework we joined back up with the IHCs to reflect upon the day’s events and share everyone’s perspectives about what they had learned. Many of us felt remiss about missing the second half of the staff ride but we understood that we were there to taste the tenets and then practice them.

Excellent Mentors

The OMNA men were excellent mentors. (OMNA International specializes in helping organizations with leadership development (http://www.theomna.com/.) I felt they were moving speakers that inspired thoughts and a lot of contemplation about our own personal roles in leading our respective agencies. During one of the integration dinners one of the OMNA facilitators startled all of us by declaring to the group, “People are like tea bags”. There was a long pause while he gazed about the room, while we all wondered where this statement was headed. “You know what they are made of once you put them in hot water”. We all laughed a little but there were many nods of agreement. Through their open questions, well placed quotes and prodding comments, they pointed out to us how we can utilize experiential learning in a safe atmosphere to give people the space to discover for themselves what they are made of before the fireline tests us in a less forgiving environment.


This style of learning models an important concept for our respective organizations and our overall tribe that stretches across geographic boundaries, fuel types, and management objectives.

Amazing Story

An amazing story was told at the end of the second day of the staff ride by one of the OMNA facilitators about The Wizard of Oz. He told us how this story isn’t just about Dorothy, there are other characters who seek to get more from the Wizard. The scarecrow is seeking a brain, the tin man is seeking a heart, and the lion is searching for courage. He reminded us that by the end of it all they discover they have it inside them. This is how a lot of us felt. This is what we do with our people. We help them discover what is within themselves. Many times, the OMNA facilitators reminded us it is our job to invest in our people and not just spend our time. If we invest in our people we will get returns in many ways.

For me, this style of learning models an important concept for our respective organizations and our overall tribe that stretches across geographic boundaries, fuel types, and management objectives. Our relationships are integral to the transfer of information through communication. Our interpersonal relationships are unique to every situation and so are the fire grounds upon which we meet.

This workshop resulted in a draft product for our staff rides, a cache of inspirational quotes, and another important product. It resulted in a change of thought for me. I realized that this type of learning can be utilized for many other things than staff rides.

A staff ride just provides a place to talk. It gives us the lasting impact of knowledge of a tool that we can utilize for many different venues—like refreshers, S courses, L courses, etc. I left inspired and motivated to continue investing in others. This experiential learning left me with a lasting impression on my own leadership ability and the potential cultural change for my overall “tribe” of wildland fire culture. This impression lingers in the form of another quote from those couple days:

“Understanding can be far more valuable than agreement.” – OMNA Facilitator

One thought on ““Leadership is an inch wide and a mile deep” – National Staff Ride Workshop

  1. Pingback: Bad Refreshers | Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

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